Arroyo Toad

Bufo californicus

  • Endangered, federal Endangered Species Act
  • Species of Special Concern, state Endangered Species Act

Arroyo toad, photo by J. Jones

Arroyo toads have perhaps the most specialized habitat requirements of any amphibian found in California. This small toad was once found throughout coastal rivers and streams from Monterey to San Diego counties, as well as in Baja California. The toad hatches in a creek and begins to develop in water; as an adult, it lives on land, where it digs burrows on sandy terraces.

But arroyo toad populations have suffered throughout the twentieth century as watersheds in southern California have been dammed and polluted by siltation from development and other activities. The arroyo toad has lost more than 75% of its habitat in southern California.

The Los Padres National Forest contains some of the best remaining habitat for the arroyo toad, and holds most of the viable populations of arroyo toads that exist today. For this reason, the protection of the remaining arroyo toad populations in the Los Padres is critical to ensure the toad’s continued survival.

Biology and Behaviors

No more than three inches long, with a greenish-gray back and buff colored underside, the arroyo toad is found only in rivers that have shallow, gravelly pools next to sandy beaches. It has very specific habitat requirements and behaviors that make the remaining populations very sensitive to threats. The toads need shallow, slow-moving streams that are flooded on a regular basis, and breeding pools that consist of very specific-sized sand and gravel that allow tadpoles to dig in sediment to feed.

Arroyo toad tadpole

The toads breed from late March through mid-June, and eggs are deposited in strings in shallow pools with little current and little vegetation. Once the toads have reached adulthood they burrow in sandy banks and terraces adjacent to streams and become predominantly nocturnal, providing some protection from predators. Adults will remain in these burrows during extended dry periods, becoming active again only during the next wet season.

Threats

The arroyo toad's habitat

This toad’s specific habitat requirements make it very sensitive to habitat degradation from urbanization, agriculture, mining, and grazing. Because the toad has disappeared from 75% of its former range, it was added to the federal endangered species list in 1994. This dramatic decline was mostly due to habitat loss from urbanization and dam construction starting in the early 1900s. Arroyo toads used to be found along the entire lengths of streams in Southern California from parts of Monterey County all the way to northern Baja California; however, now the species survives only in the headwaters of some of these streams, in small, isolated populations, and their existence continues to be threatened by urban expansion and destruction of its native stream habitat.

A Victim of Scandal

Despite these threats, the amount of habitat set aside for special protection has been reduced dramatically. In 2000, federal biologists initially proposed designating 478,400 acres of “critical habitat,” land that scientists deemed was essential to the survival and recovery of the toad. However, after bureaucratic pressure and a lawsuit by developers, the critical habitat was slashed to only 11,695 acres, a 98% decrease from the initial proposal.

Critical habitat designations are required by law to be based on the best available science, but in the case of the arroyo toad, this reduction was based on politics, not science. The reduction in critical habitat for the arroyo toad was engineered by Julie MacDonald, the disgraced former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior who resigned in March 2006 following a scathing report by the Inspector General’s Office. For several years, Fish and Wildlife staff had complained about MacDonald interfering with endangered species decisions, prompting the Inspector General to conclude that MacDonald had indeed violated federal regulations in releasing preliminary government documents to industry lobbyists, editing scientific documents produced by Fish and Wildlife biologists, and pressuring staff members about endangered species designations. In response to the Inspector General’s report, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced in late 2007 that it would reevaluate critical habitat designations for eight species, including the arroyo toad.

Arroyo Toads on the Los Padres

The arroyo toad has a number of substantial populations in the Los Padres National Forest, including Piru Creek, Sespe Creek, and parts of the upper Santa Ynez River, Mono Creek, and Indian Creek. There is also a small population along the Sisquoc River. Arroyo toads throughout Southern California, including in the Los Padres, continue to be threatened by urbanization, degradation of streamside habitat and siltation of streams from campgrounds, vehicle stream crossings, and livestock grazing, and predation by introduced predatory fish and crayfish.

The effects of the Julie MacDonald scandal were wide-ranging on the Los Padres National Forest. The Upper Santa Ynez River basin in the Santa Barbara backcountry contained 4,414 acres of critical habitat, but it was all excluded from protection for “economic” reasons. Same with Piru Creek in Ventura’s backcountry, whose 3,966 acres of critical habitat were wrongfully excluded, too.  Other rivers in the Los Padres were granted protection, but in reduced numbers – arroyo toad critical habitat was slashed by 130 acres in Sespe Creek, and 1,774 acres on the Sisquoc River. And in Monterey County, 6,546 acres of critical habitat along the San Antonio River was excluded for no reason at all. All in all, the decision left unprotected more than 16,800 acres of critical habitat in and near the Los Padres, from Monterey to Ventura counties.

Unfortunately, recent wildfire suppression efforts on the Los Padres have significantly degraded some of the best remaining arroyo toad habitat, particularly in Mono Creek, the Sisquoc River, and Piru Creek where bulldozers cleared large areas of land.  Some estimates place the arroyo toad mortality at as much as 50%, the heavy equipment crushing many toads in their burrows.

Our Efforts to Protect the Arroyo Toad

Los Padres ForestWatch is actively promoting the adoption of specific guidelines to protect critical arroyo toad populations during future fire suppression activities. ForestWatch will also continue to track the federal government’s revised critical habitat designation for the arroyo toad in the coming months to ensure that protections are restored for the toad’s habitat on the Los Padres National Forest.

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